Meditations on “A Meditation on Meditation and Embodied Presence”

Carrie Heeter has just shared with me a paper she’s written on meditation and embodied presence (Presence, Teleoperators and Virtual Environments 25-2, 2016) <edit available at>. Anyone who’s read my stuff will know that a large proportion of it is looking at how presence can support our online learning, and how the ideas of offline embodied cognition apply to our online experience. There are a few names that always crop up in my list of references and Prof. Heeter’s is one of them. One of the most influential of the papers I’ve read was one in which she looked at people’s identification with their on-screen image, (Heeter, C. (1995) Communication research on consumer VR. in F. Biocca and M.R. Levy (eds.), Communication in the age of virtual reality (pp. 191-218).)  About 25% identified with the screen, about half were mixed, and about 25% were so connected to their physical self that they couldn’t make the transition. In my PhD I found this 25% cropped up again and again  – I called them the Heeter Quarter – and there’s some neurological evidence that backs this up too (

Presence is a tricky concept to get your head around. I started my PhD in 2005 and all I managed to do by 2006 was come up with definitions of it. My supervisor (my second, the first had had enough,  I think) asked me what it means in general – outside of online learning. It was really difficult coming up with some hard definitions of it, we all know it when we see it, classroom presence, screen presence, stage presence, but nowhere actually broke it down. Poise, elan, attention.

And explaining it to others, I’d say “well you know you can sit in a boring lecture, you’re physically there, but you’re not really present, the same can happen onscreen, in fact some people never feel that sense of connection”.

I was going to write about this recently after reading Amy Cuddy’s book on Presence (well the bits I could read on the free preview). I got the general gist, which is that these ideas of presence can actually influence how you’re perceived, and so how you can be more successful if you develop them. She’s the person who did the research into power posing, i.e. standing in a Superman (or Wonder Woman) pose can make you feel more confident. I heard about this on a podcast, so initially thought of the hand raised flying pose, but it’s actually this one The book is basically lots of techniques on how to improve your presence. Body posture, voice, that sort of stuff. When I’m doing my staff development workshops on using Connect or SL, a lot is how to develop the online versions of body posture, and so on, in a nutshell the videoconferencing version of a firm handshake.

Back to Prof Heeter’s paper. It looks at meditation techniques, here are two guided meditations linked to from the paper. and I’ve tried them, she has a great voice for this sort of thing, though I was hindered by one of my cats choosing that moment to climb on me. I’m now having to write this with her asleep on top of me as a consequence.

The central thesis of the paper is that – going much further than I did when describing how sometimes we’re not really there, like if we’re in a boring lecture – that actually we’re not really present properly for the majority of the time. Interoception – paying attention to our bodies and our minds – can actually improve this sense of presence. Even the poor attempt I made at it while listening to those two audio links makes a difference, I think I do feel a bit more aware of the weight of Pasht on my chest now for example.

Promoting the experience of presence for the Heeter Quarter of my students I found very difficult. There was some correlation with how connected they were to their physicality (the three that struggled the most were a footballer, a cyclist and a sculptor – though that’s too small a sample size to really determine anything obviously). Other things like motivation helped, ideological opposition made it harder (see some of the work I did with Anna when she was Peachey not Childs for example e.g. (Childs, M. and Peachey, A. (2011) Love it or Hate it: Students’ Responses to the Experience of Virtual Worlds, in P. Jerry and L. Lindsey Experiential Learning in Virtual Worlds: Opening an Undiscovered Country, 81-91. Witney, UK: Inter-Disciplinary Press,).

The most recent paper by Prof Heeter looks at meditation activities done in VR as a means to encourage greater sense of virtual presence, and they seem to have worked. This reminds me of the meditation tree in Chilbo that Chris Collins (Fleep Tuque) created in SL. You could sit your avatar in an animation ball and it would go through some yoga poses and it was actually very calming. It would be really interesting to try some of the techniques mentioned in the paper in VR to see if it does help with a greater experience of presence. First steps though – I’m going to try the techniques IRL and see if they help with a greater experience of presence there.

Changing the student digital experience pt 5

One thing that developing a framework does is enable you to see more clearly where there are gaps. Sort of like Mendeleev and his periodic table. Putting the 13th principle together with the in-between spaces group, and then mapping what we came up with to the Jisc NUS benchmarking tool showed that those categories overlapped with the 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th and 11th principles of the tool. Which then raises  the question, what about the overlap between blended coalescent spaces and the 12th principle, ie digital well-being?

It’s not something we were focusing on but it is a key aspect of introducing blended and virtual spaces – there are a range of different elements to digital well-being that only emerge when we start transitioning between physical and virtual spaces, or merge the two.

To some extent, this is relatively advanced stuff compared to just regular looking after yourself while online, but virtual spaces usually require an avatar for interaction and that opens up a whole new area of digital experience. (Augmented reality too, although perhaps this isn’t so much digital well-being as physical, inasmuch as watching where you’re going when you’re hunting Pokemon.)  One of the things that emerged when I was looking at virtual worlds is how the sense of presence exposes the user in ways that don’t occur when you’re a disembodied presence in a forum.

One of these is presentation of self. With the whole variety of choices available to you, what you choose has a big impact. Do you choose your physical world sex for your avatar? Do you choose your physical world gender? What if those are different from each other? Do you want to take the opportunity to explore identity by adopting a different ethnicity, sex, species? Will you expose yourself to hostility if you adopt an animal avatar, or a mechanical one? (I spent a lot of time in Second Life as an airship – that got some weird reactions. Though the spider one was the only one that generated outright hostility).

If we as educators introduce virtual worlds to our students, there is some responsibility for their continued interactions with virtual worlds, even outside of the learning situations. If they’ve become interested, and developed an online identity, as a result of our teaching, they may decide to continue and explore more. And there’s some weird stuff in there, which they need to learn to ensure they’re comfortable with before engaging with (or perhaps be resilient enough to be OK with being uncomfortable). That level of embodiment also enables people to form relationships, and there can be a mismatch between the significance that people attach to those. Which can lead to people being hurt.

There is reputation management too. If you want to be taken seriously in online interactions, maybe a giraffe isn’t the best choice of avatar. But then, I did get to know one academic simply because he and I were dressed as punks at an ESRC event in SL when everyone else was in suits. So representation of self is something to be consciously engaged with, and many people first entering virtual worlds tend to be oblivious to the relevance of avatar design.

At the moment, perhaps these concerns aren’t huge ones for educators, but at least we know where to put them on the site once we do start thinking about them.



Metaxis and liminality

“In the time of chimpanzees I was a monkey”

Just as I began to write this blog I experienced an excellent example of Metaxis – I’m sitting in the local car servicing garage, in the waiting room, but absorbed in what I’m doing. My sense of presence is removed from my immediate surroundings, my mind is entirely within the online environment, and then Beck (Loser) starts playing on the radio. Straight away I’m pulled out of what I’m doing and (3-2-1) I’m back in the room. It’s that good a song. And appropriately the garage is called In ‘n’ Out. And now it’s Guns and Roses (Sweet Child of Mine). This will take a while.

Liminality is a word that’s banded around a lot, and sometimes I’m not entirely sure people have a grip on what it is. It’s a word that starts in discussions of the theatre and has been adopted more generally by anthropologists, and has made its way into education. The limen is the edge of the stage, it’s the threshold that separates the world of the performers and the world of the audience. Liminality is then the experience of transition between two spaces. In a theatre the edge between make-believe and reality is an obvious one; there’s also an important transition between outside and inside the theatre.

“Where do we go now?”

It’s different from an interstitial space however. Interstitial is between two other spaces, true, and is unallocated, so opens up a range of possibilities. The BLTC conference is largely constructed around interstitial spaces. Corridors, bridges, studio workspaces, dining rooms, without the rules of regular spaces, other things can happen.

The learning commons type of learning environments work like interstitial spaces, they’re neither formal nor informal spaces, they’re institutional but also personal. In Oldenberg’s typology they’re both second and third places – so two-and-a-halfth spaces.

Liminal spaces describe something different than just this interstiality … interstitialness … interstitial nature. The world of the stage isn’t like the regular world. It has a narrative.

damn the Stones are on … there will be another intermission

The people on it are supposed to be people other than who they appear to be. They’re not the two actors off the X-Men movies, they’re Estragon and Vladimir, for example. To engage properly with the space requires a willing suspension of disbelief, or rather (I’d suggest) an engagement of belief.

“I saw her today at the reception”

It’s not just theatre and it’s not just space either. We’ve seen in this blog entry how music can create a separate world within another one. There can be a moment of liminality, a transition from one world to another, anywhere. I can be sitting in a room but not aware of it because the background sound is some bland pop music, and it lulls the senses. I become absorbed in the world of what I’m doing online, it’s just me and you, my audience, and then some familiar strains of a rock track starts up on the radio and I’m pulled out of the world I’m creating, and pulled into the world that the musicians create. I suppose you might not like the Rolling Stones, or Beck, or Guns and Roses (if that’s the case, you might want to check your pulse) and it might not have the same effect. You might be able to sit in the audience of a play and not get drawn into the action because Beckett’s not your thing. Engagement of belief is key.

Other spaces have the same requirement. Ritual spaces, game spaces, sports arenas. Other media create the same transition within a space, books, TV, (with narrative media it’s called the diegetic effect). You cross that limen and you’re somewhere else.

Except you’re not entirely. That’s where metaxis comes in. Your sense of location and presence is a zero sum. The more you leave one world, the more you enter the other, but you can be split between the two to various extents. Sirs Ian and Patrick might be great, but you’re aware of the pressure of the seat in front of you on your knees; you’re absorbed in the stuff you’re writing, but aware that the Cranberries have just started. Or you’re getting wound up because you’ve just landed on Yavin IV for the third time in a row, but it’s only Monopoly so doesn’t *really matter. Not really. Honest.

Virtual worlds depend on engagement of belief to be fully effective as learning environments. For students so located within the physical world, they can’t lose their sense of their surroundings, and so can’t fully engage in the belief in the virtual. I think imagination has something to do with it too. Carrie Heeter calls it the Peter Pan effect, which sums it up nicely.

So why do it if it disadvantages some students? Well one reason is that for those who can experience these liminal spaces as they are meant to be experienced, it can open up new opportunities for interaction, for expression and engagement. If you can stand on the steps of the Theatre of Dionysus, as it was in ancient Greece, and actually feel it, that’s qualitatively different from just looking at a picture. And from personal experience I’d say conveys something more than standing on those steps as it is now (though that’s impressive too).

But also liminality isn’t just about the experience of presence in those spaces, it’s also about all the other things that transform when we’re in those imagination-dependent spaces (which I call 4th places for short – extending Oldenberg’s typlogy by one more). Identity, roles, rules of behaviour, community, all are transfigured by stepping over that limen. Some people would argue that the rationale for creating those spaces is that those things are transformed. Turner talked about the sense of communitas in a theatrical experience, fellowship and agápē are often words to describe the feeling of ritual spaces. Bernard Suits suggested that attending sporting events isn’t really about whether your team scores a goal or not, it’s about that feeling of camaraderie that occurs when the goal is scored. Because metaxis-wise there’s always the small voice at the back of your head that says this God doesn’t really exist, it doesn’t really matter whether my team wins, those two guys aren’t really waiting for Godot, the actual world outside the 4th places  intrudes to some extent but is suppressed to make the space you’re in work properly.

As far as education goes, these spaces can be enormously valuable, but I’d say that we’re still working out how they work, and what they mean. Looking for commonalities between them can also be instructive. They can also be difficult spaces to set up and support, but you know, you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you might find, you get what you need.





Interstitial and liminal spaces

In an interesting bit of synchronicity, the BLTC planning and the themes identified, have coincided with an online discussion group that I’ve recently joined on the subject of inbetween spaces. It’s been mainly an email discussion group, but we’ve also met up online in a Google circle. The video of that first meeting is here:


You can see here evidence of the strength of the written word over spoken in my case. A combination of lack of sleep (insomnia could be an upcoming blog post) and the mania that comes with being exposed to a mass of interesting ideas from interesting people rendered me almost unintelligible at moments, but I think the others make plenty of sense, so the video is well worth watching.

Liminal spaces is one of the themes of Making Sense of Space; a book I worked on with my friend Iryna Kuksa. The book proposal was hers, and she invited me to contribute to it. I was stuck for what to contribute, then decided to rework a proposal I’d made for a Marie Curie Fellowship, which had fallen through. It was an excellent complementarity between Iryna’s work and mine; she’d got a monograph on design of spaces in virtual worlds, I’d got my stuff on the experience of spaces in virtual worlds, we put them together and co-wrote an introduction and conclusion. I’d also got a couple of chapters’ worth of work that was on work I’d collaborated on in both education and performance in virtual worlds, and it all fitted together really well – after Iryna had honed out many of my off-topic musings (I managed to persuade her to leave some in).

One thing that helped me pull my bit together was a model I’d come up with a few years earlier, which is an extended version of Activity Theory. Activity Theory has evolved over the years; starting with Vygotsky, then reformulated by Leont’ev and extended by Engestrom. To that illustrious list you can now add Childs :-p

I like activity theory as a description of what goes on when activities take place. It’s pretty simple to get hold of once you realise it’s not really a theory. It simplifies quite a complicated process by breaking it into its component parts, and enables you to singly consider the connections between those parts. It usually gets represented as a triangle, like this:


Obviously it’s just a representation – reality is what Adams once described as a WSOGMM (whole sort of general mish-mash) – but that’s too messy to really get a handle on.

The problem with activity theory is that it misses out two factors that a elemental in understanding activities and that is the participants’ sense of presence, with the space and with each other, and their identity, as learners, teachers, whatever. Now it’s fair to say that identity is probably already in there, it only makes sense in terms of community, or in the roles that we’re assigned, or I’d say it’s actually a tool we use in interaction. But anything that’s smeared across so many other categories just adds to the messiness of the analysis, so it’s simpler to just add it as another category.

What we then get is a triangle with identity and presence on either side – which actually looks like this when made a bit more regular:

activity theory

These eight categories then give a useful way of breaking down the specific characteristics of liminal spaces.

That’s a lot to go into here (plus, you know, buy the book) but I’ll talk about just one of these, in the next post; presence.


Creating presence online

Last week my headset stopped working in a videoconference with my line manager. I asked him to wait a few minutes while I found a replacement and went to the Bag of Useful Things at the end of my sofa. My cat was sitting on the arm.

Cat (looking on): Meeeoooww.

Me (to cat): I know, I’m looking for a spare headset.

Cat: Meeeeoooww.

Me (tipping stuff onto floor): OK it’s a mess, I’ll clear it up later.

Cat: Meeeooow

Me: No. Nothing there. I’ll give up.

I went back to the laptop, and see that I’ve forgotten to mute the microphone. The one thing more embarrassing than talking TO your cat when people can hear is talking WITH your cat.

On a forum earlier today too I was talking about Teresa MacKinnon’s work with Wimba discussion boards. A colleague had been talking about a voice-recording plug-in for Moodle. I suggested that if it had the functionality of Teresa’s work, i.e. having an option to just click on the set of reply options to open up a recording dialogue, which you could then record a reply and click on it to upload, this is far better than going to a recording program and creating, storing and uploading a file. I used a shorthand phrase to describe this —  a Wimba way. A new post means I can drag out all the old puns that got tired in the previous post.

So both of these things came up in the webinar this morning while we were waiting for people to turn up. I relayed the conversation with my cat (quoting the cat’s parts). Then I recounted the “a Wimba way” pun (which works better in audio than text). Which meant that the participants entered the Connect room either hearing me meowing, or me and my colleague singing The Lion Sleeps Tonight before the session started.

Now anyone who knows me is aware one of my biggest faults is a poor filter mechanism. I don’t play out in my head things before saying them. So maybe that doesn’t always come across as professional. However, I am going to argue that actually in online teaching, it’s incredibly useful.

One of the topics of the presentations in the seminar covered the role of humour in teaching. The presenter said how useful it is. She also pointed out how much we as teachers rely on visual cues from students and how that’s missing in an online environment. I’d agree with that, but only to a point, in that it’s also possible to develop the habit of supplying and looking for other cues. Emoticons, brief comments, even just seeing the “(typing)” notification appear in the chat box are all cues that the audience is engaged. After one particularly bad experience with presenting via videoconference (no camera at the far end, and no typed responses to my questions – but I still kept going – then found out when I finished that no-one had been listening to me because a row had broken out at the far end about a previous session, and the row had got so bad that people had actually been thrown out) I will now not continue unless I get a response. “I’m waiting …. I can wait all day if necessary.” We need to train our students into supplying those cues during our teaching.

Another presenter discussed the role of cake in teaching. In order to engage her students she brings them cake. Cake also helps with encouraging them to attend focus groups. I have been employed by 10 universities now, and Brookes does have the best cake. Another lecturer discussed Lego which we also all agreed was an excellent motivation for learning but a real bastard to kneel on.

At the end of the session all of the presenters said it was a lot less nerve-wracking than they’d been expecting. One of them said it was a real laugh.

The problem with presence online is a difficult one to overcome. You can never be as present online as you can in a proximal situation. The technology can only do so much at bridging distance. However, this can be compensated for by a whole range of mechanisms, particularly humour, and being relaxed, and being as personable as possible (in words of Mel C, be yourself, unless you’re a tw.t, in which case be someone else), and off-topic at times, and talking about cake, can all add to that sense of being together. It takes a couple of goes to relax that much, to be able to function despite the visual cues (actually for me it’s probably a lot easier without them because the visual cues are quite often eye-rolling). I’d suggest we all attempt to inculcate that type of interaction as much as possible.

And I’ll carry on having conversations with my cat.

BIM Level 3 compliance

Still blogging about the BIM-Hub project from at the website As we’re half way through the PI and I have started looking at follow-up projects and one of the grants going round at Loughborough at the moment is Enterprise funding. So we were looking at commercial exploitability of what we were doing. Throughout the project we’ve been looking at a range of things, one of these is how to set up collaborative projects between multiple universities, and what needs to be in place for the students to conduct them effectively. On top of that are the skills that the students need to collaborate. Breaking those down though we can see that some of these aren’t specific to online collaboration, they are generic skills for any type of collaboration, meeting deadlines, planning activities, that sort of stuff. However all of them need to be in place, and not all of them can be assumed to be amongst the skillsets of the students. Well in fact you shouldn’t assume any of them. For me though, the most fascinating are the skills that need to be acquired to make the online synchronous interactions work effectively. It ties into my work on presence a great deal, and has been called by one of my colleagues situational awareness. You can see in the recordings of early meetings, there is little in the way of an online situational awareness, and this really gets in the way of an effective collaboration.

Looking at commercial exploitability the PI on the project was talking about a new version of BIM that is being introduced. BIM is Building Information Modelling, which is a kind of transactional online space in which architects’ plans, building models etc are all shared, together with timelines, deadlines and so on (OK that’s a given if we’re talking about a transactional online space, but this is specifically for the Built Environment sector). Level 3 is introducing realtime collaborative manipulation of 3D models to facilitate online co-creation of digital artefacts. The technology will be in place, but experience indicates that the skillset in order to make this work effectively won’t be thought about until people start screwing up. It was the same with videoconferencing. The trainers and techies would come in, set up the link, explain which button to press, and leave people to it, assuming “well they know how to teach”. Thing was, the skills needed to teach in a videoconferencing environment are far different than a classroom. You have to emote more, you have to pay a lot more attention to backchannels, you have to take your own level of participation way down (because the cognitive load of watching a lecturer on the screen is way higher than following them in a lecture room) and you also need to give them stuff to do in classroom, to bring back to the videoconference, so they get a break from it. And you also need to find little tricks to create a stronger link between the two ends (matching physical artefacts, that sort of stuff). There’s other techniques too.

So teachers would come in, use the videoconferencing kit as they’d been shown, but with no training in the specific skills on *how to function in that environment. The session would be a disaster and they’d go back to travelling a day or two to do a two-hour lesson.

So, the dangers are that BE businesses are going to use Level 3 BIM, not realise there are a load of soft skills they need to apply to make the collaboration effective and deem the whole thing a failure. What we’ve realised we’ve done in the project is to dry run the whole Level 3 BIM thing with students in a working simulation, with similar software, and identify what the issues are in order to provide guidance for anyone using Level 3 BIM. There may be some more once it gets used in the commercial sector, but we have a strong evidence base for what needs to be done.

So … even if the bid for further funding isn’t successful – putting the bid together has been useful because it clarifies the value of what we’re doing on the current project. I’m a big fan of utilisation evaluation, you just find out the stuff you can use. On the project we’ve now got a really good idea of what we need to find out, and for whom. And … that it will have a real practical use.

Social presence and bots


One of the issues with MOOCs and just a whole mass of OER in general, is that if you have thousands of people looking at the materials, who’s going to help give you the individual steer through them that many learners need. Bots are one of the things that may help with this. Bots or companion agents, or AI tutors – they can be called any of these things (but NOT avatars, avatars are specifically online representations of humans, don’t get them mixed up) are standalone programs, which can be purely text-based, but are usually these days a head and shoulders or even a 3D representation (in which case they are embodied companion agents). In virtual worlds, they are indistinguishable from avatars, until you start to talk with them). Even then I’ve run workshops where one or more of the attendees have had long and increasingly frustrated conversations with a bot. There is a sort of intellectual arms race between humans and bots called the Turing test. The idea is that a person will try to work out by having a conversation whether something is human or computer driven (a process called turing, i.e. they ture, they are turing, they have tured – actually only i call it that, but I’m trying to get it taken up by everyone else and eventually adopted by the OED). Although the programs are getting better, people are getting better at turing, so the bar is rising faster than the programmers can match. At the moment.

In the work I’ve been doing with avatars, there’s a strong link between the affinity people feel with their avatar and their perception of how effective their learning is. In the project I’ve been doing with Ravensbourne College and Elzware, I started with the same hypothesis, if the learner feels more affinity with the bot that’s leading them through the content, will they experience their learning as more effective?


We’re not at that stage yet, but in the first phases – since the ethos of the project is that it is a user-centred design – we began with a series of workshops to identify which of a series of bot designs the learners would feel a greater affinity towards, and why.

The students selected a bot design that was not anthropomorphic, though narrowly beating one that was. The reasons for this were various, but was down to three major reasons:

Bots that were realistic and too anthropomorphic were too creepy and too distracting.

Bots that were cartoony and too anthopomorphic weren’t creey but were still distracting.

Bots that were realistic but not anthropomorphic were just right.

Bots that were cartoony and not anthropormorphic were unengaging.


“Realistic” in this sense, is a very specific usage, meaning engaging the breadth and/or depth of senses, and is the sense that people like Naimark and Steuer use it. So it could be 3D rendering, higher number of bits, more detail and so on. It also means behavioural realism, and it was this aspect, having a personality (and not necessarily a pleasant one) that students felt made the “realistic” but non-anthropomorphic the best tutors for them.

We still haven’t been able to put this to the test – the actual I in the AI is still being worked on, but we have hopefully put in place a design that will make the bot something the students want to learn from.